Paleo for the Masses: You don’t need a Whole Foods Market to go Paleo

Hayley and I have been very, very busy finalizing our new cookbook, Make it Paleo 2, and have also been working on a soon-to-be-announced side project that involves many of your favorite Paleo cooks (so stay tuned for details on that!) Since we’ve been swamped with “other” work, Kara has been a rockstar for us, keeping things alive on our blog (she’s posted 90% of the posts for the last few months!) Today she wanted to share a very personal story about her family. It’s a great message that might resonate with many of you. Let us know in the comments below what you think! -Bill & Hayley


This post summarizes how I was able to find Paleo products during an extended stay with my family in rural Iowa. But first, let me explain why I was home for so long, and why it was so vital for my family to follow a healthy diet during that time. This February, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At age 55 and with zero symptoms, he walked into what he thought was a routine physical. One fluke PSA blood test was what set everything off. After receiving the results, he called me on his drive home. I can easily say that was the worst phone call I’ve received in my life. 

Surgery was quickly decided upon as the best route, with April 1st being the earliest date available. However, a true Iowa farmer for 30+ years and the single most stubborn person I have ever met, my Dad looked at the doctor and said, “That doesn’t work for me. April’s planting season.” The doctor was given a three month window between planting and fall harvest to work with, and the official date was pushed back to July 31st. 

I honestly thought if cancer didn’t kill my dad, my mom would. 

So on July 31st, I arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN to join my family. Upon my dad’s release we returned to my hometown in Elgin, Iowa; which has a population of roughly 500 people. Not 500 thousand, five hundred. We have one grocery store, which we are very fortunate to have. There are no Trader Joes, no Whole Foods Markets, and the nearest Target is an hour and a half away. In Pittsburgh, I live within walking distance of all three. But none of those things prevented me from placing my dad on a strict Paleo diet the moment we returned from the hospital. [The copious amounts of baked goods arriving daily with loving family and friends threw him right back off it; but hey – for 23 hours of the day, I made sure that man was eating Paleo.]

paleo in a small town

In our 30 Day Guide to Paleo program, people often comment they do not have access to specialty Paleo products. Whether they live in a rural area, like my family, or simply do not have specialty grocery stores in their hometown; they think their only option is to buy items online. This is not the case. By taking a survey of the land and finding what is available to you, you can find Paleo groceries anywhere. Here’s how I did it during my time at home:

How to find Paleo products [anywhere]:

1. Assess what is available to you.

This first step might seem obvious, but it’s the most important. Take an honest account of what you have available in your area, and I’m not just talking about grocery stores. Look online and see if there are farms, farmers markets, food delivery services, co-ops, or local buying clubs in your area. When I went “Paleo grocery shopping” for my family, I made three different stops: Wal-Mart, for non-perishable items; Fareway, for produce and meat; and a local food co-op, for hard-to-find Paleo products. 

2. Purchase non-perishables and specialty items at big-box stores. 

By now, big box stores such as Costco, Target, and Wal-Mart all carry gluten-free products and Paleo products in stock. Make a list of every item product with an extended shelf life (think ingredients and condiments). You might have to do a little digging to find the items on your list, but here are two tips: 1) Search the “sale” aisle, particularly if the term gluten-free is not prevalent in your area and 2) Think in the broadest terms imaginable. I.e., if you are searching for coconut oil, look for it next to canola oil, corn oil, Pam spray, etc. Can you find the coconut oil in the photo below? 

coconut oil in walmart

3. Aim to purchase a one month supply of the items listed above. 

If you live within one-two hours of a big-box store [I’m imagining someone reading this wondering how it’s possible to not live within two hours of a Walmart] you do not want to have to make this trip twice. Use the Primal Palate meal planner to generate shopping lists and estimate how much of each item you will need for the next month. I was home for three weeks, and here are the items I purchased:

Tip: Diane from Balanced Bites often sends out sample shopping lists for big box stores on her e-mail blasts. Visit her site to see these lists. 

4. Don’t fear frozen.

We tend to hold this connotation that frozen food is terrible for you, but that’s not true (unless you’re out shopping for Lean Cuisine meals, in which case, knock it off!) Frozen fruits and vegetables can actually be better than fresh items in the off-season, because they are picked at their peak and frozen immediately, rather than slowly losing freshness during transit. Now, I understand if you prefer the taste of fresh produce over frozen (who doesn’t?), but some recipes do very well with frozen items, including (click for recipe ideas): 

5. Dig up every last thing your town has to offer. 

Don’t tell me you don’t have any specialty items anywhere near you. I visited a local apiary when I was home, and went home with two of the freshest jars of raw honey I could hope for. I could name half a dozen families who I could have purchased eggs from, had it been necessary. There are so many access points to specialty items, that don’t involve a brick and mortar store. 

6. Call ahead.

If you are making a trip for a special ingredient, make sure the store has that ingredient before getting in your car. The one ingredient I did not think I had a prayer in finding was coconut aminos. However, after calling a food co-op located 30 miles from my house, I was shocked when they told me they carried it. Actually, they had numerous Paleo products I didn’t think I would ever find, making the trip very well worth it!

7. If you can’t find an ingredient you’re searching for, ask the store to stock it.

While visiting the local co-op described above, I was so impressed by their selection I asked a worker if they stocked gelatin. I had never purchased gelatin in a store before, and always had to buy it through Amazon. The worker replied, “No, we don’t have that. But I can put in an order for you if you like.” Stores want to to move product. If you make it clear there is a demand, they might consider carrying it. 

8. If you can’t find a product in stores, you can still find it online.

In the Primal Palate store, you can find all the ingredients, condiments, snacks, and other Paleo products we recommend. If you have a large family, buying online might prove more economical as you can buy items in bulk. Finally, if you are searching for non-perishable items such as meat and produce online, the following sites are very beneficial: Eat Wild, Local Harvest, Caveman Grocer, and the USDA Farmer’s Market Directory. 

where to find paleo groceries online

9. Remember: Recipes are not written in stone. Don’t sweat it if you can’t find it. 

Can’t find cremini mushrooms in the local produce section? No problem; swap in regular button mushrooms instead. Want to make curry but can’t find red peppers? Use green or yellow, or leave them out all together. Seasonings can also be very difficult to find, but the substitutions are endless. Swap in cumin for coriander, paprika for smoked paprika, or turmeric for saffron. View this list to see common spice substitutions. 

10. Don’t try to be perfect. 

produce isle

The produce isle at the local grocery store

If we all lived in urban or metropolitan areas, we might be shopping through gluten-free food isles, visiting the farmer’s market each Saturday, and choosing from every cut imaginable at the meat counter. But guess what? We don’t all live in those places, and that’s not what Paleo is about. The entire philosophy behind Paleo is returning to what we are intended to eat, and that includes eating the foods available to you. Did I shop in the organic produce section while I was home? Not once. Why? Because my hometown grocery store doesn’t have one. The entire produce section is approximately twelve feet long. We often hear that we should know where our food comes from. If that’s what it boils down to, I am much more likely to know where my food is sourced in rural Iowa, than in a city. There is nothing “wrong” with either scenario. As long as you are weighing your choices and choosing the one most optimal for your health, you’ll be just fine.

Want more Paleo tips? Check out our 30 Day Guide to Paleo ebook!

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    1. September 12, 2014

      This is awesome! Thanks for sharing… us rural Iowa folks sure know how to be resourceful!

    2. tadiulus
      Supporting Member
      September 16, 2014

      Kara, I hope your father is doing well. Thanks for sharing this information. It’s amazing how health keeps inspiring stories. This information is hugely helpful I think for people living everywhere who struggle with the idea that they have to go to the “right” stores and get the “right” foods to properly eat Paleo. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

    3. doc0875
      May 4, 2017

      Stubbs makes a gluten free AND sugar free BBQ sauce . . . its is about the only one I have found locally (north-central Florida) . . . may not be available in rural Iowa though.

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